Receipt: April 18, 2022
Acceptance: September 2, 2022
The Otomí peoples’ perception of covid-19 was marked by their historic experience facing exogenous illnesses from the colonial period to the present day. In the face of the arrival of the pandemic and a lack of precise information, ritual specialists both in the Sierra de las Cruces and Sierra de Montealto (in Mexico state) and in the Sierra Norte de Puebla were driven to identify it, determine its origin, and, using their ritual proficiency, give it a body and a face in order to battle it with greater efficacy.
"if god doesn't pronounce it, we don't die": multimedia chronicle of the otomí ceremonial circle against covid-19
The Otomí peoples' perception of covid-19 was marked by their historical experience facing exogenous illnesses from the colonial period to the present day. In the face of the arrival of the pandemic and a lack of precise information, ritual specialists both in the Sierra de las Cruces and Sierra de Montealto (in Mexico state) and in the Sierra Norte de Puebla were driven to identify it, determine its origin, and, using their ritual proficiency, give it a body and a face in order to battle it with greater efficacy.
Keywords: covid-19, Otomí, sickness, ritual specialists, dreams, cosmopolitics.
In March 2020, the confinement by covid-19 forced me to evaluate the possibility of keeping active or suspending the ethnographic work I have been carrying out for a decade and a half in villages of Otomí origin. When I consulted one of my closest interlocutors, I got the following answer: "-If you are afraid, don't come, or don't you trust the Owner of the World? Faced with this answer, I decided not to be afraid. This multimedia chronicle, in the form of a documentary, is the result of that (ir)responsible decision.
Since the end of 2019, an army of epidemiologists, virologists and other experts in the field of medical science toiled in their highly specialized laboratories, seeking to understand the origin, development and mutations that would lead to finding in record time possible vaccines against covid-19. At the same time, powerful anti-vaccine movements arose in many regions of the world, and in many countries fierce street battles were fought against measures of confinement and restrictions on the mobility of people (but not of goods). Conspiracy theories coexisted with very timely reflections on biopolitics and necropolitics associated with the management of the virus and the global crisis that its appearance brought with it (Amadeo, 2020). The world was immersed in "magical thinking" (Gusterson, 2020), fought fiercely by "the scientists", apparent owners of the (very limited) knowledge available about the virus, which proved an effective spur: without a doubt, covid-19 turned out to be something (or someone) "good to think about".
While in the laboratories of research centers or pharmaceutical companies, experts worked with frenzy, other specialists (specifically shamans and other ritual specialists) worked in their own laboratories, that is, in the hills, caves and oratories, seeking to understand a plague whose origin came - in their own words - from the non-indigenous world. For several months, they made great efforts to discern the virus, rigorously following the methods of their own "science of the concrete" (Lévi-Strauss, 1964: 42). With their work, they seemed to dialogue with the intuition proposed by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro that in the West "to know is to objectify", while for Amerindian shamanism "to know is to personify" (2004: 43); thus, the effort to grant personality to covid-19, through dreams, visions, trances and divination rituals, did not appear as an epistemological or cosmopolitical minor task: literally, many indigenous peoples' lives were going in this urgent identification, as I wrote in a very recent text (Hernández Dávila and Peña, 2021).
I understand here by cosmopolitics the reflection based on Isabelle Stengers (1997) and taken up by Montserrat Cañedo Rodríguez (2013) in a compilation of texts on the subject. Cosmopolitics is not based on a universalism free of conflicts, but on a universalism free of conflicts, but on a universalism free of conflicts.
of the qualitative difference in the modes of existence and knowledge practices linked to them and associated to different actors in different places. In other words, it starts from the verification of plural ontologies on which a political question is posed, that of their modes of coexistence, assuming that differences can never be entirely pacified (Cañedo, 2013: 10).
I invite the reader to approach the ethnographic material. During the Holy Week of 2020, in the mountains of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, a bädi widely known inside and outside his community, San Pablito, Pahuatlán, achieved (by exercising his shamanic gift) see the face and listen the voice of what he called cororin, (covid-19) in a dream, which in reality was a pesedia (nightmare); his name is Alfonso Margarito García Téllez, who is also recognized as a competent paper cutter, a skill cultivated for decades. In addition, don Alfonso Margarito has co-authored at least two academic papers (García Téllez and Díez Barroso, 2012; García Téllez, 2018). These cutouts personify, give body to both the seeds and the owners of the mountain and the water, the meteors and the nocturnal predators and the bad airs; they specify the nzaki (the strength) of each existing one. The cuttings are essential elements in the custom and other therapeutic rituals of Otomí, Nahua and Tepehua (Galinier, 1990: 292 ff.; Heiras, 2010; Trejo et al., 2014). The catalog of this art is so vast that it has taken generations of researchers to inform us of its joyful complexity, since the pioneering publications of Hans Lenz (1948) and Bodil Christensen and Samuel Martí (1971), and this is not the most appropriate space to expand on this complex and very broad subject. However, in spite of his skill with the scissors, Alfonso Margarito did not cut the cororin, He drew him with brushes on jonote paper: so vivid was the dream that he managed to project his features, clothes, body and attributes with precision, and to record -and fix- his words. It was thus that the voice and face of the cororin, went from the oneiric register to be embodied in the same text, in the way that Carlo Severi (2004) described what he called "chimera-objects".
At the same time, more than 200 kilometers away to the south and in other mountains also inhabited by Otomí, a group of mëfi (a word that translates as "worker" or, more accurately, as "peon") gathered for the great feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15, 2020, at the oratory located at the top of the hill of La Campana, located on the border of the municipalities of Huixquilucan and Lerma, in the State of Mexico. In the early morning, the Lord of the Divine Face (also known as the Lord of the Mixenthethe jaguar of the bush) tomHe took the body of one of his workers who, in a trance, lent her body and voice to this deity. In spite of the torrential rain that was pouring down on the mountain, the Owner of the World commanded the mëfi to represent a celestial battle on the top of the hill. He asked to take the silver crown from the ancient stone cross that represents him and that is kept in a glass case protected by glass walls. He also ordered to take the blessed palms to brandish them as vegetable swords, whose function was to clean the air and decapitate the virus. Thus, accompanied by the music of a violin, the mëfi they circled the world (i.e., the outer contour of the oratory) and, dancing, chased away the plague, confronting "the crown of Christ with that of the coronavirus".
To these ritual brawls were added, in those fateful months, other therapeutic labors: in some corner of this mountain range, the mermaid owner of the water (called Minthe, in Otomí) took the body of a renowned healer from the town of San Pedro Abajo, Temoaya, and let the world know that the remedy against the epidemic was to drink the sacred water from the springs that emerge from the bowels of the mountain: "pure water against the flu". In the foothills between Huixquilucan and Naucalpan (also in the State of Mexico) another woman, mayora of a parental oratory in San Francisco Ayotuxco, received in a dream the visit of Jesus Christ, who manifested her anger with humanity because of violence: girls or women raped, murdered or disappeared, misfortunes that offend especially her mother, the Virgin, "who is also woman and mother". The majority continued to share the message of Jesus Christ: "I will cleanse with my crown half of this house", equating the deaths by covid-19 to a kind of sacrificial purification of the Earth. That same woman transmitted the recommendation of Jesus Christ not to heed the calls of the government to attend hospitals, and invited that, at the slightest suspicion of flu, honey, citrus and garlic should be consumed, as medicines "of God" against a disease that comes from the world of the mbehesand katrinas, which is how the mestizos and mestizas are called in these mountains. "Covid-19 is also a disease that they sent from heaven because the Earth can no longer stand so many people," maintains Andres Trejo, an old mëfi from the mountain of Huitzizilapan. "That disease came from somewhere else, from far away, in the helicopters that pass by at night, spraying their bad water over the villages," he finishes off. Don Andrés met with many other mëfi to ask the saints, virgins and Christs to protect the towns, with their sacred mantle, from these nocturnal overflights of death.
These experiences refer us to the work of Jacques Galinier who, in his book A Night of Fright. The Otomi in the dark (2016), put before our eyes the relevance of the ethnography of the nectarean in the Otomi world. And although the examples can be multiplied, the fundamental thing jumps to the sight: the same the pesedia that Alfonso Margarito experienced in the Sierra Norte of Puebla, as the battles that the mëfifrom the mountains that divide Mexico City from the valley of Toluca fought at dawn, the plague is a fateful element, fatal and of nocturnal nature. Night was its element, its natural environment: I recorded information about sites where neighborhood guards were placed at community springs, fearful that "the government" would contaminate them during darkness with the new disease. In Otomi thought, the semantic field of the pandemic confirms that it was and continues to be a being of the night of expiatory and sacrificial character, endowed with a halo of prophylactic renewal of predatory dye, similar to other beings that populate the dark world in large regions of indigenous America.
How did the Otomí experience perceive, narrate and confront a pandemic in the global world, a world to which they also undoubtedly belong? During these years I verified in the villages of the Sierra de Las Cruces and Montealto that in the memory of some of them there still remains the memory of the "mal caliente", one of the many names given to the so-called "Spanish flu", that is to say, the influenza that struck the planet between 1918 and 1919. One of those memories was shared, with confusion and sobs, by Don Andrés Pablo, a resident of San Francisco Magú, State of Mexico. His testimony states that "those who were buried today were buried tomorrow. And after the town was emptied by the flu, big, big corn ears were born in the cornfields, like they had never been seen before. But what was the point? The people had already died.
Just as the cocoliztli, the matlazáhuatl or any other type of epidemic, the covid-19 was presented before the Otomi gaze not only as a merely clinical and public health issue: it was demonstrated once again that all viruses came from the predatory alterities with whom the communities have coexisted, generally with dismay, for centuries and which, in the current context, are identified with the economic interests that destroy the forest, the springs and the fauna. "The Earth cries, cries out in pain", said the Virgin of Guadalupe in her invocation as the owner of the water, in her spring of the hill of La Tablita de Temoaya in the days of the beginning of the confinement.
By March 2020, the complex system of patron saint festivals, ceremonial circuits, carnivals and pilgrimages in the sierra of Las Cruces and Montealto was underway. In addition, in this region there are a quincunx of hills on whose summits there are chapels that house the "crosses with faces" (in Otomí, hmi p'onti), which are the Divine Face. Each hill has its own Divine Face that delimits a territory that extends into the mountains and into the valley of Ixtlahuaca: this sacred dimension of space is consistent with that proposed by Barabas in a brilliant analysis of sacred ethnoterritoriality in Oaxaca (2006). The mëfi sustain that the five hills delineate the body of Christ: the head is in the hill of La Campana (Huixquilucan), while the arms are in Hueyamelucan (Ocoyoacac) and Ayotuxco (Huixquilucan). The belly-heart is found in the hill of La Veronica (Zacamulpa and Xochicuautla, Lerma) and the feet in Tepexpan, Jiquipilco, towns located in the State of Mexico. The hills and the Christs that live in them form a fraternity in which the Virgin of Guadalupe intervenes, also as a sister. The networks of divine kinship reorder the human society: in effect, the mëfi (who are compadres among themselves), once their divine election is confirmed, they marry the Divine Face and, thanks to this conjugal alliance, they give their body to the Lord and Lady of the mountain (who have no body). This is how the gods manage to speak and be heard in the solar world by means of a trance called service, of clear nocturnal mark: "the service is a dream, it is to fall asleep so that God can speak through one's body," says a mëfi of Ameyalco. It was through the services that the Divine Face and the Virgin of Guadalupe made known their position in the fight against the covid-19. And although they disassociated themselves from the origin of the plague, they promised to do what was necessary to safeguard their sons and daughters "and the whole Earth".
It should also be noted that, at the beginning of the pandemic, the skepticism of the indigenous communities in the State of Mexico remained active and in each of them the version spread that the disease either did not exist or, on the contrary, came from the government "to wipe out the old people". "The [curing of] covid is not the work of the Divine Face. That was invented by politicians," was a common phrase heard in the villages. The plague did not come from God: during the feast of the Holy Trinity in 2020 and, by means of a serviceThe Divine Face said that "this flu, this virus is nothing compared to what the world will see when I release my horsemen of the Apocalypse". And he continued:
There you will see the end of the world, because my envoys will not distinguish old from young, men from women: my sword will sweep away everyone equally, and no one knows the day or the hour. My machete will sweep the world. There will be famine and drought, many tears will be shed in their eyes. But that will not be now. That is why I tell you that whoever trusts in me will remain alive. That is why do not stop coming to see me, to give me my gift, my little plate, my food.
In view of the clarity of this mandate, the mëfi knew that to stop climbing the hills to maintain and sustain the gods was a bad decision. If the priests barricaded themselves in their temples and broadcast their masses on Facebook, those had no choice: if they wanted to keep sustaining the world alive, the ritual work had to be kept up, despite government warnings to close even the chapels and caves in the hills. "They don't know what we do, better they don't even know, but we are doing their work better than the government in healing the people," proudly said the mëfi of Ameyalco.
At this point it should be pointed out that my ethnographic capacity does not reach, not even moderately, the territory of the Sierra Norte de Puebla or the contiguous region of the southern Huasteca. The ethnographic literature of the region is, fortunately, very extensive for decades. Without entering into useless controversies, I will mention as a reference the already classic works of James Dow (1974), Jacques Galinier (1990) or Guy Stresser Péan (2011), and more recently the works of Israel Lazcarro (2008), Carlos Heiras (2010), Trejo Barrientos et al. (2014) or those published by the Journal of Otopames Studies. It should also be noted that, specifically about San Pablito Pahuatlán, Puebla, there are the indispensable works of Libertad Mora (2008, 2011). But, together with the anthropological literature, I appeal to what it meant to me to meet don Alfonso Margarito, a skilled paper cutter and, as I said at the beginning of this text, distinguished otomi bädi The occasion arose when, in a post on his Facebook social network, ethnologist Iván Pérez Téllez asked for help for Don Alfonso, who supplemented his income by selling handicrafts, both in paper cut-outs and painted paper as well as chaquira accessories. As was evident, the pandemic had reduced his income and any help would be welcome. It is only fair to note that we also owe this colleague a sharp reflection on the subject at hand (Pérez Téllez, 2021).
Discussions with the bädi always led to the same direction: their dreams of the cororin,The dark intentions of the Chinese, Japanese and African kings, "worshippers of gods who are wild animals" to "fuck the Christ", the thankless tasks of the doctors who killed people to give food to the devil, the absence of fear among the Otomí in contrast to the terror with which the mestizos lived, etc. Years before, Pierre Deleage and Jacques Galinier (2013) had called our attention to the way in which this bädi had moved on from cuttings on jonote paper to the design of its own books (codices), where the written word coexisted with the iconic materiality of the cuttings. These books formed a "canonical" set of four volumes to which one more was added, just above the coronavirus.
I have pointed out that Alfonso Margarito did not cut -but he did draw with brushes- to the cororin,the texts with deeply suggestive information were also added to it. This is how I came up with the so-called Pandemic papers. These are the result of transferring a dream to paper, they are the passage from the experience and the oneiric impressions to the plastic material on jonote paper and colored, always accompanied by a text written by don Alfonso, at the same time onironaut, painter and amanuensis. What persisted from don Alfonso's dream in his Papers? A summary of all the variants (don Alfonso has painted no less than fifty versions of the Papers) could be the following: the government version of covid-19 is a "lie"; i.e., it is true that the virus is a disease, but it is also a set of three existing nefarious, endowed with an agency that goes beyond the mere clinical issue. These characters are the Ánjela [sic] of Hellwho is accompanied by President of Hell and of the President of Purgatory, they are recurring protagonists in the healing clippings as evil spirits that must be fed and then driven away from the human world. This evil trinity was sent (as diplomats from the underworld) by the Chinese and Japanese kings, who worship wild animals and seek to weaken the Christ, his law and the Bible. Infiltrated in Mexico and in the Christian countries, the malevolent triad ordered the doctors (white and mestizo) and nurses in the hospitals of Mexico to kill people and thus provide the devil with "tasty Christian Indian meat". In this framework, only the mestizos are afraid and keep their mouths shut. But the indigenous people of San Pablito do not show fear. In the Papers this bravery extends to the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who also does not cover his mouth "because he is indigenous and hangs up his uevos [sic]". In this matter, don Alfonso Margarito is insistent: the indigenous "are chingones", they live without fear. Only the mestizos show cowardice, even the priests and bishops, who cover their mouths out of fear.
From the first Papers elaborated in 2020 and up to the most recent ones, the narrative has been acquiring nuances that confirm and enrich it. At one point, the author makes the evil trio say that they have already set foot in Rome and the Holy Land (an allusion to the spread of the virus throughout the world) and at some points he claims that an effective cure against the cororin,once he has heard it approaching houses, he burns dried chili peppers that scare it away because of its pungent smell. At some point, Alfonso Margarito maintains that the Chinese want to take over the world to sell their merchandise. Another reiterated idea (shared with the Otomí of the State of Mexico) in the Papers is the certainty that for the Otomí, death is not something that comes only through illness and depends on God:
eyo(s) (Indians) say that we already know that we are all going to die when we already know that we are going to die.
if god does not say, we do not die
says the indigenous peoples [sic]: the indigenous bastards are more alive
the mestizo peoples are fearful(s) as well as the priests.
Indians believe in the wind, believe in water, believe in mother earth and believe in Christ and the Virgin.
The faces, looks, gestures and bodies of this trinity recall those "anthropologies of fear" and the always glimpsed returns of monsters (Pratt, 2007; Fernández Juárez and Pedrosa, 2008). There is no escape: if the epidemic is seen by the Otomi as the result of envy and war between gods of different origins, the appeal to Christ and the Virgin as synecdoches of the Earth and of what is truly human reminds us that Christianity is, for the Otomi world, more a cosmopolitics -a constant negotiation between existents that need to coexist- than a religion in its Greco-Latin form.
With the passage of time, since March 2020, the efforts of Otomi ritual specialists to identify and classify covid-19 yielded results; first, they located it as something harmful enough to ignore it, and then as a result of the someone of whom it was necessary to know his voice, face and origin. If there was one thing that Otomi ritual specialists in the State of Mexico and the Sierra Norte of Puebla agreed on, it was to point out the power of fear. "What kills people is fear, not the flu," I heard said in several ceremonies. For example, in Temoaya, the Virgin of Guadalupe, by means of a service, said that "it pained her that her children believed more in doctors and nurses" (the mbuehes and katrinas, "people from the city") then in her, and that she was hurt that health was not recognized as coming from the remedies that she dictated: "You," she said to those present in the oratory, "trust the doctors more. Cursed is the man who trusts in man". The service closed with a phrase that paraphrases the one that the Guadalupana said to Juan Diego in Tepeyac: "Why am I not here, why don't you see me who am your mother, your doctor, your health? At the top of the hills of La Campana and La Veronica, the faithful of the Divine Face insisted again and again that "He dies who God wants to die. His children will be saved, those who have faith and trust, those who give him their gift and those who go up with faith to ask for health. What doctors and what hospitals, He and He alone knows the day and the hour! He knows the remedies, the medicines, what to do!".
The truth is that, at least in the State of Mexico, anxiety and terror did take their toll on an Otomi population that was always known to be vulnerable. Indeed, the mountain villages provided labor for the construction and manufacturing industries in the valleys of Mexico and Toluca, as well as for other trades that could not be stopped during the pandemic. A significant number of laborers, bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, domestic workers, security and janitorial personnel, either abandoned their jobs or were temporarily laid off. Others, on the other hand, maintained a rhythm of circulation that very soon exposed them to the virus. In the towns of the Mexican mountain range, news of contagions and deaths of entire families due to covid-19 spread very quickly.
In addition to these deaths, within the towns themselves, there was an aura of bad air and exclusion towards the sick and their close relatives. In the twelve communities and towns of Huitzizilapan, people asked by all possible means (including through social networks) to suspend the so-called "double ringing" of bells that announces a death to the population, for the simple reason that they rang for days on end without ceasing, announcing that death had ceased to be a sporadic episode in the population, to settle as a guest impossible to eradicate. The silenced bells marked the route of the cessation of public rituals in the temples. Fear seemed to be winning the battle.
A quick review of the incidence and lethality map of the covid-19 virus in Mexico today leaves no room for doubt: the plague painted the entire country red; but in this sense it is important to add that dreams, trances and ceremonial enclosures provided the Otomi with a series of responses to hear the voice of the disease, see its face and oppose it with spring water, night battles, smoke from burnt chili peppers, honey, oranges and lemons, garlic and temazcales. If the pandemic was, to paraphrase Galinier, a sort of "nightmare in action", it is possible to maintain that the actions of the bädi and the mëfi confirm Lévi-Strauss' intuition, in the sense that "the opposition between ritual and myth is the opposition between living and thinking", that is: "the essence of ritual is to try to reduce thought to the lived" (1964: 609).
The ritual cycle of the mountain did not stop: if the masses were transferred to Facebook (because of the fear that paralyzed hundreds or thousands of priests around the world), the rituals on the hill could neither stop nor be transferred to social networks: it was necessary to give body, receive the word from heaven, sow in the sacred caves, feed the gods, venerate and dance and sing to the seeds. At times it was unavoidable to alter the climatic cycle: the mëfi of Ameyalco decided to delay a little the request for rain and ask the Lord of the Exaltation of Xochicuautla (entity that regulates and governs the wind) to be active to keep the clouds away and prolong a little the summer drought, because they had heard that the covid-19 "did not resist the heat". On the other hand, in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, as every December 24, in 2021 the seed blessing ceremony was carried out with the serenity that the cause demanded: I witnessed how dozens of families came to the Casa del Costumbre accompanied by photographs of their migrant sons and daughters in the United States, who hoped to be blessed and not lose the protection of the village gods, in a year when remittances arriving from the north grew significantly, just in the pandemic times when migrants were declared "essential agricultural workers."
And the killing goes on. During the month of February 2022, the people of the Sierra de las Cruces and Montealto attended the Otomi carnival in Huitzizilapan. "The fear did not bend us," said Agustín Gutiérrez, a young Otomí, who knows, however, that this long night is one more of those that these people live and have always lived through, and for which one must be prepared: "The virus did not kill us because in the bush there are always the answers," he concludes while caressing the Guero his dog, his faithful companion in life.
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Carlos Arturo Hernández Dávila D. in Social Anthropology from the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (enah). He has been coordinator of the undergraduate program in Ethnology and deputy director of undergraduate programs at the same institution. His work focuses on Otomi Christianity in the State of Mexico, as well as on the visual memory of the working peoples of the Valley of Mexico. He is currently a professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Reflection at the Universidad Iberoamericana-Mexico City, as well as in the PhD in Human Development at the Universidad Motolinía del Pedregal.